Court: Ex-federal immigration lawyer can be sued for forgery

August 14, 2018 - 5:33 pm

SEATTLE (AP) — A former federal immigration lawyer who forged a document in an effort to get a man deported can be sued for damages, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday.

Jonathan M. Love was assistant chief counsel for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Seattle in 2009, when he forged a document purporting to show that Mexican immigrant Ignacio Lanuza had voluntarily agreed to be deported in 2000.

An immigration judge ordered him sent back to Mexico based solely on the form's existence, and the Board of Immigration Appeals upheld the decision. But in 2011, Lanuza obtained a new attorney, Hilary Han, who noticed something strange about the paperwork: Its letterhead said "U.S. Department of Homeland Security" — a federal agency that didn't exist in 2000, when the document was dated.

After the forgery was discovered, an immigration judge granted Lanuza, now a 41-year-old Seattle construction worker, permanent resident status, allowing him to remain in the U.S. with his wife and two children, all of whom are American citizens.

Love was criminally prosecuted, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of depriving Lanuza his civil rights, and was sentenced to a month in prison in 2016. He was also ordered to pay Lanuza $12,000 to compensate him for legal fees.

But U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman reluctantly dismissed Lanuza's civil claim against him. The judge said legal precedent barred Love from being held personally liable for actions he performed as a federal official.

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously reversed that decision Tuesday, saying Lanuza could seek damages from Love for the emotional toll he suffered while facing deportation. Lanuza is also suing the federal government for malicious prosecution.

"Failing to provide a narrow remedy for such an egregious constitutional violation would tempt others to do the same and would run afoul of our mandate to enforce the Constitution," Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw wrote for the panel.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Lanuza rejoiced at the decision and said it helped restore his faith in the government.

"Today I'm very happy: They found the problem, and they made it right," he said through an interpreter, his current lawyer, Matt Adams of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. "This can also help a lot of other people. They can know not to be scared to move forward with their cases and not be afraid to fight."

Lanuza came to the U.S. in 1996. He came to the attention of immigration authorities in 2008 after police responded to a noise complaint and saw him handling a gun that belonged to a friend. At the time, he was entitled to apply for a green card, but the forged document would have made him ineligible.

Court records indicate that Love, 60, is now living in Evanston, Illinois, but a woman who answered the phone at a listing for him Tuesday said he does not live there. She said she believed he lives in Seattle, but declined to say how to get in touch with him. He is representing himself against Lanuza's claims.

A government review of his work found no other instances of forgery. His defense attorneys in the criminal case said the lapse should not overshadow his decades of public service as a state prosecutor and immigration lawyer. They said he suffered from depression and was stressed because of a workplace dispute with his supervisor.

When he was sentenced, Love told the judge he didn't know why he did it.

"It was stupid and unnecessary, and the consequences of my actions have tarnished my hard work and dedication to public service for the last 30 years," he said.

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